Carol Espinosa on Networking as an Introvert
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In our third episode, Carol Espinosa, founder of Freedom Interiors, joins host Alana Muller to share how she approaches networking as an introvert. Being a good listener, taking a genuine interest in people and finding common ground with others are essential to Espinosa’s networking process. “I love listening and I'm a learner as well. I love the learning that comes from conversations and I always try to figure out what the other person is looking for. How can I make their day? How can I make them happy? And if I get to know that, I get to know the best parts of them.”
Alana Muller: Welcome to Enterprising, a podcast from Enterprise Bank and Trust. That's empowering business leaders. One conversation at a time we'll hear from different business leaders about how they've found success in cultivating their professional networks and keeping them healthy and strong. I'm your host, Alana Muller, an entrepreneurial executive leader whose primary focus is to connect, inspire, and empower community. We at enterprise bank and trust. Thank you for tuning into another episode.
Hello listeners. Welcome to another edition of Enterprising. I am particularly excited about today's guests. I'm a big fan girl of Carol Espinosa, the founder of Freedom Interiors, who is here to tell us not only about her amazing company, but really about her relationship building and how relationships have helped her and her company to be successful. So,[foreign language 00:01:05] . And I have to tell you that I say that in Portuguese, after studying Portuguese on Duolingo for the last 1,592 days, I can tell you I can't understand a lot, but I can understand more than I can say. So we'll see how that goes, but welcome
Carol Espinosa: [foreign language 00:01:24] It is a pleasure to be here with you.
Alana Muller: So happy to have you tell our listeners before we dive into our conversation a little bit about Freedom Interiors, what the company is and why you started it.
Carol Espinosa: So at Freedom Interiors, our goal is to bring our customer's vision to reality through workplace design. So we do our best to understand what somebody's vision is to create either a learning space or a workspace. And then we use our tools and technology and multiple Francher lines to create an environment that will achieve whatever goal it is that they want their space to achieve. And I started the company about 10 years ago, mostly because I wanted, I like a challenge. I like being outside of my comfort zone and I was eager to build something and I love processes, I just wanted to see how far I could go and what I could do. And the truth is that company grew beyond my wildest dreams.
Alana Muller: Isn't that the way it's supposed to go? I just love that. I just love that. And you know, it's interesting, interesting. You say that it grew beyond your dreams, but I suspect that not only did you earn this, but you worked really hard to get where you and where the company have gotten. So, congratulations to you. I want to dive into our conversation. And one of the things that I was so excited to read about and to learn about you is just your bent toward process improvement. And that, that was really one of the motivators for you to get started with the company. So as you think about the ways that you've taken action to engage in process improvement, I want to think about that. If you would, from a networking perspective, how have you put this into action and I'm particularly interested in how you actively manage your own network, your own relationship base.
Carol Espinosa: And it is so funny that you say that because the truth is that I'm actually kind of scared of networking. Okay. I'm terrified of networking. I am an introvert. I think I'm a little socially awkward at times. And I thrive at the one-on-one connections. I'm a relater, but if you put me in a group of people, I always feel a little bit awkward and never quite know how to connect to people and, and how to do small talk
So I really did take a process approach to it. And I went out to educate myself and I actually, I made lists of events that I would go to with organizations and people, and try to dial it in to figure out what works and what doesn't work and where I should be spending my time, because there's a business. Well, as a person in general, right? Our time is limited. The number of hours that we have in, and they are finite whether we like it or not. And I had to figure out what was the best value for my time and where I could actually add the best value to the people that I was around as well.
Alana Muller: That makes so much sense. And it's so funny. I hear you say that you're an introvert. And what I think is that I think introverts make the best networkers because I suspect that if tested, you're an amazing listener and that, that one-on-one experience... I love how you said you were a relater and that's really what drives your networking interactions. Interestingly, for me, I'm not a huge fan of the networking event and I'm the networking girl. Like I would not say I'm an introvert. I would say I'm an extrovert. And yet, just as you described that idea of connecting with somebody one-on-one in a more intimate setting is so much more appealing to me than some big cocktail party.
Carol Espinosa: To me as well. And usually the questions that I gravitate towards instead of being, "Hey, you, what do you do? How long have you been in business? What makes you happy?" And people are a little caught off guard when you get some like, vague question like that, because I really want to know what people value, what people care about and how we can find killing ground to actually create a meaningful relationship. If we ended up doing business together for us, that's a great bonus, right? But people are different. People care about different things, and it's always fines to figure out what we all have in common, even when we're such different people.
Alana Muller: Well, and I suspect a little bit of that might be the Brazilian in you, right? So I know that in 2011, you became a very proud American citizen, but grew up, you were born and raised in Rio. Do you have anything in mind related to that? Do you think that maybe there's sort of a different mentality when it comes to relationship building or interactions in that way from a both a kind of an American or domestic perspective, as well as an international perspective.
Carol Espinosa: There's definitely a cultural difference when it comes to being in a social setting. So as a born and raised Brazilian, I'm a hugger. I kiss people on the cheeks twice when you meet people. And when I arrived here, people would look at me like, what are you doing? You're invading my bubble. That's my personal space. And I was just so used to hugging everybody and kissing everybody. So I really had to dial it in myself once I became a business owner, but I still hugged people. But, but now at least I know, especially after COVID, I always give people a heads up, I'm a hugger. Is it okay to hug? And you can tell based on body language...
Alana Muller: Absolutely.
Carol Espinosa: [crosstalk 00:06:40] Are very open, very touchy, very warm that Americans are warm as well. But when I believe in, I've never actually had a career in Brazil, I came here, I was still a teenager and I was going to school, but it just feels very differently. And I had to learn how to navigate that, but still, let it come through because it is part of who I am. And I don't want to be somebody else in any setting. Right. But one of my goals in life is to just be myself, whatever it is that I do, even if it makes me queen of awkward at times, I'm okay with it.
Alana Muller: I love it.
Carol Espinosa: I did not make people uncomfortable.
Alana Muller: 100%. You know, it's funny, that you say, especially during the time of COVID you had to sort of recognize, you can tell by people's body language, they were not welcoming, that you coming in for the hug. You know, I too am a hugger. I have to admit, and it's funny. Maybe I can count on one and a half hands. The number of times people have been like, whoa, back off sister. But definitely during COVID, in fact last week, I sort of forgot myself. And I went in for a hug and actually the person said, I have to tell you, that's the first hug I've received in a long time, but I liked it. And so I appreciated that. [crosstalk 00:08:02] I was worried I had to apologize. Oh no, I liked it.
So that was good. But I totally agree with what you said. I do think that there are some cultural differences and having spent time internationally myself, you can't, I mean like the kisses on both cheeks, definitely a cultural difference or in the United States, I will see what things are like after we kind of evolve out of COVID, but just that the handshake or the fist bump, much more American than international. So you're absolutely right.
Carol Espinosa: [crosstalk 00:08:31] The handshake. And in this day and age, even with a handshake, you're better off asking, are we good to do a handshake?
Alana Muller: Exactly. Right. That's exactly right. I want to ask you a little bit kind of this notion of making relationships meaningful from both sides. What are some ways that you make connections mutually beneficial? So I know that for you travel and outdoor activities are among your passions. How have these interactions or these interests factored into your ability to grow your relationship base so that there really is mutual benefit for all parties?
Carol Espinosa: Yes. So I think my deep interest to get to know people and that really helps there. And I am a good listener. My husband always says, I'm a much better listener than I am a talker and sometimes times he wishes, I'd talk a little bit more. I love listening. I love, I'm a learner as well. I love learning that comes through in conversation and I'm almost trying to figure out what is the other person looking for? How can I make their day? How can I make them happy and if I want to get to know them in that, I get to know the best parts of things.
So I can then share that with the rest of my network, right? So I'm, I'm huge on referrals, but they need to be true, meaningful referrals. I would never refer somebody I don't trust. I would never refer somebody I don't know. So I always take that extra step to really get to know them and figure out, if I'm putting my name out there and saying, you should talk to so-and-so whomever that is, then I want to make sure that I just coming from an authentic place. And I'm not just saying something for saying it.
Alana Muller: Well, I love that. I mean, it's, that's really what you're talking about is making it not transactional, that it really is. You're coming from an authentic, a genuine interest in getting to know somebody and getting to know them as a person. And then maybe down the road, there is a transaction to be had, right. I mean, love doesn't pay the bills as they say. So it's nice to get to know people, but it's better to do business with people who you know, like and trust and that you have an actual relationship with.
Carol Espinosa: That's exactly right. And I think you hit the nail on the head. It's that transactional. So when I walk into a networking event and I have been to hundreds of networking events by myself where I didn't know anybody, and it's such an uncomfortable feeling in the fact that, I'm like, okay, I'm going to talk to five people, but I don't want those exchanges to feel transactional, where to be transactional. I actually want some sort of a meaningful... I want to leave knowing that I know more about the people that I just met than I knew before, instead of just showing up for the sake of showing up, just to say that, that I was there.
Alana Muller: Yeah. That's really nice. Can you talk maybe about a specific interaction that you've had with somebody maybe some kind of interaction that resulted in a breakthrough for you personally or professionally?
Carol Espinosa: Actually, I can talk about both. I have two, one at that's a personal connection and one that's a, it was a game changer for the business itself. So on a personal level, back in 2019, I was diagnosed with a brain tumor called an acoustic neuroma. And I started doing research to figure out how I wanted to handle it. And it was not life-threatening, it could have become life threatening, but it was benign I had to figure out a treatment path. So I started doing research and reading about it and getting involved with organizations. And I learned about Shanna Adamic. She is the executive director at Cerner Charitable Foundation. I reached out to my network for a connection with her because just a few months before I was diagnosed, she had the same tumor and she had surgery to remove the tumor. So it just so happens that Erin Falk is a part our savored network and Erin had just interviewed her for her podcast.
So I reached out, Erin and introduced us. Shanna started exchanging emails, and we're trying to figure out a time to connect, but we couldn't quite figure it out. So in the meantime, I had an event in Sporting Kansas city, and again, I was tired. I didn't want to go. And even though it was like a sporting event and I love soccer, I love sporting. I had to convince myself, go show off. It's going to be okay. So we went and I didn't know anybody there in halfway through the game, this woman just comes over. It touches me in the arm and she looks me right in the eye. And she says, I'm Shanna, I saw your name. Cause she had arrived before me. And she worries... That's a trick that I learned when networking. She told me that she scanned all of the names on all of the names bags to see who was also coming.
She recognized my name and we had not met in person. We had not talked on the phone. There was just email exchanges in it. And I can still feel it because I was so scared and I was going to have surgery and I wanted to learn. And to look me right in the eye. And she said, I just want you to know that you will be fine. And I didn't even know what to say. And to just hugged me and I hugged her and we just hung for a while. At that moment, I knew I was going to be okay. And my husband is there holding my hand and he's like, flabbergasted. He doesn't even know what to say because he knows who she is. We have been talking about it. And it touched me so deeply. And I was so grateful that I actually showed up, that I was there because it gave me a sort of internal peace and to see somebody who had gone through a challenge that I was about to go through.
And let me tell you, when you know, somebody who's going to open up your skull and go into your brain and cut out a piece of it. Just the prospect of that happening is pretty scary. And she had just gone through a everything. She was fine. And she told me it was going to be fine too. And I knew that was a fact.
Alana Muller: That is an amazing story. I didn't, I didn't expect you were going to make me cry, Carol.
Carol Espinosa: Well...
Alana Muller: Oh My gosh. Amazing.
Carol Espinosa: I had tears too when it happened and it was a very meaningful exchange for me. So, I love Shanna. She's amazing. I'm always watching her from afar and seeing her successes. And she's one of my heroes because her strength to get through what she went through and to share that with me, gave me the strength to do the same thing.
Alana Muller: That's an amazing story. I mean, what an incredible story and Bravo to both of you, Bravo, to both of you, the fact that, oh my gosh, the fact that you had the presence of mind to do the research, to discover someone locally who could potentially be helpful, at least from an advice giving perspective and that there was a way to connect that you found, a common person, Erin, in this case who brought you two together and that on the backend, she was looking for you too. And that she did do that networking trick, where she scanned in advance, who was going to be there. She looked at the gift bags to see whose names were there and that she actively sought you out. I mean, what an amazing story. And I suspect that you will be friends forever.
Carol Espinosa: Yeah. And it was a very powerful point for sure. So there sorry, I mean to cry, it was one of those moments that you just can't explain in words, you just feel it and you just go with it. And it was truly amazing. So there's my personal moment. And I, I also have a professional one as well. Back in 2018 Enterprise Bank actually held a networking event and it was called the Grand Prix racing. So there was go-kart racing and I was invited and that's when I needed be honest. And just let everybody know, I'm not a good driver. I'm one of the worst drivers you've ever met. I'm okay. I've come to terms where they, I don't need to be good at everything. So I drive when necessary. I do an okay job about it. I'm safe, but, but I'm definitely not a racer.
And I was invited again. My, my first inclination is no, I do not want to go race go-karts. And then I thought again, I'm like, okay, we'll try something outside of my comfort zone. And hopefully nobody will get too annoyed at me because I'm not that good at it. So I showed up and there were about, I don't know, maybe 12 people between real estate brokers and business owners. And I was the only woman, so we'll start there, but we started racing and I was going slower than everybody else. And they started kind of like honking and getting annoyed behind me. And I'm actually waving people through with my arms saying, "Please pass me, please pass me." Of course I came in last.
I decided not to do any more races, but that event was actually when I first met Scott Havens. He's one of the most wonderful, smartest networker. I know. And that was a game changer for myself personally and for Freedom because Scott and I followed up with coffee after that race, if anything, I made everybody feel good because everybody was, they all placed better than me, [inaudible 00:18:15] lie by a lie.
Alana Muller: And nobody got hurt as a result. I mean, it sounds like it was win-win-win.
Carol Espinosa: I'm very safe. I had my helmet on, I was making sure that I was slowing down before the curves and all of the other guys were going like as fast as they could. But it was making that connection with Scott really cascaded into a lot of other events that happen in the life of the company and team members that joined an organization that I in turn joined. And more people that I met that Freedom would not be the same company it is today, where it not for me making a decision to go 100% outside of my comfort zone and do something that I'm so not comfortable with by the way.
Alana Muller: Well, and of course I love that it was an Enterprise Bank networking event, so hooray. Well, what's interesting is, I mean, you've mentioned a couple of people that I know who are just phenomenal networker, what I would also characterize as master networker. So Scott, Erin, I think that what I have discovered over the years is that once you sort of figure out the type of network that you want, the type of networker that you want to surround yourself with, it becomes much easier. So even as you describe yourself as sort of a self-proclaimed introvert, who I think is really a phenomenal networker, that there is a way forward because of the kinds of people that you've chosen to surround yourself with.
Carol Espinosa: Yeah. That makes perfect sense. And the more you do it, the easier it gets, and then you start to meet people and then you know that somebody you know will be there as well, which also makes it easier to take that first step.
Alana Muller: Yeah, that's exactly right. I want to ask you, there's been a lot of really amazing, wonderful buzz about Freedom Interiors, over the last year in particular. One of the things that I know is that the company won a very nice sized contract from Kansas City International Airport, as that airport gets revamped entirely, that I know that Freedom is is playing a very active role in terms of the interior design and furniture placement at the airport. I also know, maybe on the flip side of a less exciting news story is that the company was held for ransom. So you were hacked by a ransomware attack. And it seems to me that in both cases, networking actually played a role, for in the first case and ultimately helping you to land a contract and then secondarily helping you out of a crisis. Can you talk a little bit about those two situations and how networking played a factor?
Carol Espinosa: Yeah, absolutely. So with the airport contracts and we're super honored and super excited to be a part of that project, being a Kansas City girl, I am so proud to represent and having started a business from scratch that a woman owned minority owned business. This is amazing. When I told my family, they said, wait, so when we go visit you, when we arrive, we're going to see your work. And I'm like, yeah, everybody will see your work. And like, yeah. So making my parents proud is really, really, really cool, but that's a little bit of a funny story because of course, as a company we've been chasing the airport for many years since it was announced that Kansas City was going to get a new airport and we have our business development people and our project leads and myself, we're all trying to make connections and talk to people who were involved.
And we were talking to different people, even providing furniture for the trailers. But at the end of the day, that the bid for the furniture came out. We didn't know about it. Nobody told us in the way that it got to me was through a connection, a woman business owner as well, who forwarded it my way and said, "Hey, you may want to take a look at that. They're looking for a woman known in minority owned businesses." And I'm like, oh yes, finally, it's here. So all of the networking that we're trying to do within the project universe didn't work, but then, the networking that I've always done outside and all of my other connections there that kind of brought it full-circle. So that was a good moment. And again, it was a full out competition. So we still had to be price competitive and provide a good solution, which we did.
So we're, we're pretty excited about that in the hacking incident. That's absolutely not fine. So 2020 was a tough year. It started with COVID the moment I thought we were adjusted and we had a blank for the business and we weren't cutting costs and marketing and selling more and trying to figure out how to survive the moment I thought we were okay. And we had a good plan. Then we got hacked and it was a very substantial amount. Networking also played a very big role in us actually being able to recover two thirds of the money. So again, thank you Enterprise in Kansas City Police Department and FBI for helping us with that. But when I first heard about the potential, what was happening it about five o'clock on a weekday. I got our banker on the phone right away and she ran away and got somebody else with Enterprise on the phone.
And we're on the phone for three and a half hours. I'm not kidding you. It was from five o'clock until 8:30 that night, trying to leverage resources and call people and reach out to banks and talk to the police and try to find a path forward. And the fact that the entire banking network actually went into action so quickly was crucial in order for us to be able to recover the most recent payments that had been made. We still had to take a hit, unfortunately, but you know, looking back, it is what it is.
I can't change. We always have a saying within Freedom that is control the controllable. I cannot change the fact that it happened. What I can do is figure out how are we going to process that. And which steps are we going to take to make the best out of the situation and of course, to learn from it. So it never ever happens again in, the fact that we got through it in that 2021 is a much better year than 2020- is really a good sign that networking really, really helps get through potential catastrophic events.
Alana Muller: Yeah. No kidding. Well, I want to conclude with just a couple of fun questions. Let me ask you this. If you could meet one person for a networking interaction, anybody who would it be and why?
Carol Espinosa: That is such a tough question and I think today at this moment, I would have to say, well, either Tad Lasso or Jason Sudekis. One or the other, and I've been, I've been obsessed about the show with all of the Emmy Awards that it's just so exciting. I cannot tell you how many times I've watched season one on a repeat and I've read that Jason Sudekis is just like Ted Lasso and I want to be more like Ted Lasso.
Alana Muller: The good news is that they're both from Kansas City. Right?
Carol Espinosa: Exactly, and I'm proud of that fact. He's from Overland Park actually. So he's taken like... I really don't know if I'm talking about Jason Sudekis, but I'm definitely talking about Ted Lasso. He's a real person. He has his own personal struggles and challenges, but he keeps choosing to look at the bright side of life and to share that with people and to keep putting one foot in front of the other. So I've been absolutely obsessed with the show. So if Ted Lasso so wouldn't be the person sitting.
Alana Muller: That would be the guy. I love it. And then I'm always looking for good books and good reading material. What's on your nightstand currently.
Carol Espinosa: Okay. It's going to sound like it stays, it's not, your book is on my nightstand.
Alana Muller: Well go Coffee Launch Coffee, thank you.
Carol Espinosa: Yes. I figured it would be a good book, especially getting ready for, again, talking about processes and research. Right. I figured I should learn a little bit more about you and your take on that working in the book has been extremely helpful, really good read. So..
Alana Muller: Thank you for that. Not a plant listeners, not a plant. I very much appreciate that. I appreciate that. It really allows both of us to live our truths. So thank you for that. Well, Carol, I have loved this conversation. Thank you so much for the commitment of your time. And just so generous. Tell us where we can learn more about you and about Freedom Interiors.
Absolutely. Thank you for having me as a guest. This is a very enjoyable conversation. If people want to learn more about Freedom and what we do, our website is www.fre3dom.net. So it's a little 3D hiding inside of freedom, a little play with our virtual reality design process and we're also on social media, on Instagram and Facebook. And we also have a 7,000 square foot showroom in West port, and that's probably the best way to learn more about who we are and what we do is to just stop by over here and have a happy hour drink with us at our bar.
Alana Muller: Well, you can count on me being there. Carol, thank you so much for your time listeners. Thanks for tuning in for another edition of Enterprising.
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